West Virginians living abroad vote by phone
More than 100 West Virginians living abroad in nearly 20 countries cast their ballots Tuesday for the midterm elections in an unprecedented pilot project that involved voting remotely by mobile device, according to state officials.
The statewide pilot, which covered 24 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, used a mix of smartphones, facial recognition and the same technology that underpins bitcoin — blockchain — in an effort to create a large-scale, secure way for service members, Peace Corps volunteers and other Americans living overseas to participate in elections.
West Virginia is the first state to run a blockchainbased voting project at such a scale, state officials said. And if adopted more widely, the technology could make it easier to vote and potentially reduce long lines at the polls. But many security experts worry that the technology might not be ready for broader use — and could even contain vulnerabilities that risk the integrity of elections.
By Election Day, voters had submitted ballots from Afghanistan, Iraq, Guatemala, Lebanon, South Africa and Venezuela, among others, said Michael Queen, deputy chief of staff to West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner. Warner’s son, who is in the military and stationed abroad, also participated in the pilot, Queen said.
As many as 300,000 U.S. voters located overseas requested ballots in the 2016 elections but failed to submit them, said Queen, a figure that suggests many Americans face difficulty participating in elections from abroad.
West Virginia turned to Voatz, a blockchain-focused investment firm owned by the online retailer Overstock. com.
The Voatz app has been used on a limited basis in other settings, such as student council races and West Virginia’s May primary. But Election Day represented the company’s biggest test yet.
To cast a ballot, voters registered through the app by uploading an image of their driver’s license or other photo identification. Then the app instructed them to submit a short video of their own face. Facial-recognition technology supplied by a voter’s iPhone or Android device matched the video against the photo ID, and the personal information on the ID was matched to West Virginia’s voter-registration database.
Once the verification was complete, voters made their selections and confirmed their ballot.
Hilary Braseth, Voatz’s director of product design, said that in addition to the technological verification process, the company also had human workers manually review the submitted information. The company does not store the personal data once a voter’s identity has been confirmed, she said.
Votes were stored on a private blockchain — essentially a database secured using complex computational algorithms — and unlocked by county clerks when the polls closed.
Those votes were printed onto paper ballots, which were then counted with all other ballots on Election Day.
Several independent, outside auditors are expected to spend the following months assessing the pilot project, with a report likely made public early next year.
Queen said West Virginia has no plans to extend mobile voting beyond its relatively small overseas population.